Conflict is one of those aspects of writing that has caused more than its fair share of writer frustrations.
Like many writers, I’ve spent countless hours creating conflict in my novels. I’ve thrown exciting obstacles in my protagonists paths, I’ve developed sinister antagonists to thwart my heroes, I’ve devised cruel ways to put my characters through mental anguish — and my beta readers still told me, “This book needs more conflict.”
Because despite what we “know” about conflict as writers, the concept isn’t so cut and dry. It’s hard to create quality conflict in a story.
How to create compelling conflict in a story
It’s not just about the obstacles in the path, or the bad guy with the evil plan, or the mental anguish of the hero. It’s not the plot or the character arc, even though we often talk about it like it is.
It’s a tapestry woven from multiple aspects of writing that work together to create a feeling that victory will not come easily to the characters, and it leaves readers dying to know what the protagonist is going to do about it.
Over the years, I’ve pinpointed the three most common reasons writers stumble over creating conflict in a story.
1. Conflict isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” issue
Conflict is the push and pull of the character as she experiences the story.
It’s the combination of external challenges with internal struggles that rounds out the conflict and gives meaning to what the protagonist does. These two sides work in tandem to illustrate why the problem of the novel (the core conflict) is worth reading about.
What works for one story might not work for another, and even within the same novel, you’ll have different aspects of conflict depending on the needs of the scene.
Something might technically be a conflict (two sides in opposition), but it doesn’t make a good story conflict, because a strong story conflict has to also create a situation that drives a plot and leads readers through that story.
For example, a shootout between outlaws holed up in a cabin, while the sheriff’s posse tries to apprehend them, has plenty of conflict, but two sides shooting at each other for hours isn’t a very interesting story.
If the situation doesn’t do anything to create a strong story, it won’t feel like an actual conflict.
This is tough, because what constitutes a “strong story” can vary by person. Readers have biases, likes and dislikes, and that contributes to how they regard story conflict depending on the genre they enjoy.
And they’re all right, and all wrong, because different genres use conflict in different ways, and what readers look for varies. Different genres require different approaches when developing the conflict.
2. It’s not always clear what people mean when they say “conflict”
If two writers are coming at conflict from two directions, there will likely be misunderstandings about what they’re actually talking about.
Getting feedback such as, “Your novel lacks conflict” isn’t helpful if the person giving that feedback is referring to a different type of conflict.
For example: If Writer A thinks conflict is about the internal struggle of a character, she might think Writer B’s adventure novel that’s heavy on plot has no conflict — even though it does.
In contrast, Writer B could read Writer A’s novel and think nothing ever happens because the conflict focuses on the internal and not the external.
One conflict is external and requires external actions; the other is internal and requires more reflection and thought. Neither is plotted or written the same way, and trying to plot the internal conflict the same as the external conflict will lead to some troublesome scenes.
You might look at such a comment, point directly to the core conflict of your novel and disregard the advice (and then pull your hair out when you keep getting rejected).
Context is everything, and if you don’t understand which type of conflict someone is referring to, it can lead to a lot of frustration and confusion. You might think your novel has all the conflict it needs, so any “needs more conflict” feedback you get just flat out doesn’t make sense to you.
3. Using the wrong conflict makes it harder to write a novel
Use the wrong conflict and things don’t quite mesh in a novel.
This is most often seen when trying to plot using the internal conflict of the character arc.
For example, an internal conflict might work wonderfully to support the character arc, but internal conflicts don’t create plot — they just make it emotionally harder to overcome those external challenges. What the character physically does to resolve that internal conflict is the plot.
Say you have a novel about a woman with a criminal past who gets out of prison and wants to go the straight and narrow and get her life back together. Many writers would say this book is about “A woman who gets her life back together after she’s released from prison.” And they’re right — but many of those same writers would have trouble creating a plot to support this story.
The reason? There’s no conflict in that description of the book. It’s more the description of the character arc.
“Getting her life back together” doesn’t show a plot, because nothing in this statement provides an external goal to pursue. There’s also no conflict — nothing is preventing her from getting her life back together. Without those details, the goal isn’t specific enough to know what external challenges she might face as she tries to get her life back together.
Trying to plot with a character arc can create a lot of frustration for writers. The focus is on the internal struggle to change, not the external action, so the specific tasks (the goals) aren’t as defined as they need to be. It’s like trying to bake a cake without putting it into the oven. The external heat is what turns the ingredients into dessert.
At its most basic, conflict (internal or external) is the challenge to overcome whatever is preventing the protagonist from doing what needs to be done — physically, emotionally or mentally — to resolve a problem and move forward.
Once you understand how conflict works in your fiction, you’ll know what each scene needs and how to best develop the different layers and aspects of your story’s conflict.